Updated on 16 March 2021
From before their beginnings in the shadows to their final great gathering and beyond, this is the Seekers ‘complete’ history.
Like their scattered presence in the 17th century, across historical sources the Seekers are scattered and only appear in the odd few paragraphs here or there. No monuments or statues dedicated to them. There are also no contemporary illustrations of them ever meeting.
The above image is from an early Quaker Meeting, which in all likelihood would have been very similar. In fact if not for the Quakers, who inherited the core of their faith, the Seekers would be little more than a footnote in the English Revolution.
Here the Seekers’ story is brought together for the first time.
- Fear of the Anabaptists
- Bartholomew Legate and his Brothers
- Shadows, Secrets and Silent Gatherings
- A Design for Peace
- George Fox and the Children of the Light
- The Seeking Quakers
- Funeral for a Friend
1. Fear Of The Anabaptists
In early 17th century England, whereas Catholics were feared because they were the perceived enemy of the Protestants another religious group the Anabaptists were held in equal fear.
Anabaptism was a radical faith. Anabaptists were independents whose primary belief was that individuals should be baptized as an adult and not as a child. Because, as they believed, only an adult could confess to Christ. Anabaptism had begun around the beginning of the 1500s as a splinter movement of the Reformation. Part Catholic and part Protestant they mixed elements of both faiths together to create a spectrum of beliefs.
To the right and more conservative were the orthodox but radicals who identified more with the Catholic church and its structure. They merely disagreed with how the Gospels should be lived in everyday life. To the left were the radicals who embraced the reforming theology of Protestantism. They created a culture for wanting to tear the whole church system down and rebuilding it from scratch.
English society’s fear had begun mainly due to the Munster Rebellion of 1534, the same year as Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy. The city in northern Germany became the setting for a group of Anabaptists to seize control of the local government and claim Munster as the new Jerusulum.
A year long siege with the German authorities ensued and there was terrible suffering inside the city walls. Munster was recaptured and order was restored with the Anabaptist ringleaders being burnt at the stake. St Lambert’s church in Munster to this day has three empty cages hanging from its steeple (pictured above). They once held the burnt bones from ringleaders John of Lieden, Bernhand Knopperdolling and Berhand Kretchting.
Several years later in 1609, the English being the English, decided to create their own version of Anabaptism led by a man named John Smyth. He and his followers simply called themselves Baptists. A former Anglican preacher, Smyth baptized himself declaring “there is good warrant for a man churching himself”. Thus by doing so the Baptists became separatists who no longer needed the control of the church, a dangerous belief at the time.
English Baptists were Protestants and believed in Primitivism, a return to early Christiantity a time where the church was not seen as corrupt. They also strongly believed in Pacifism and the act of non violence, a very different approach to their German origins.
In 1612, a year after the King James Bible, it would come as no surprise to see James I order the burning at the stake of Anabaptist sympathiser and outspoken radical Bartholomew Legate.
2. Bartholomew Legate And His Brothers
The Legate brothers, were Bartholomew and his two siblings Walter and Thomas. No portraits of the three brothers exists. The only historic image of the Legates is this illustration of Bartholomew being burnt at the stake in 1612 (above).
Born circa 1575. Bartholomew and his brothers began their preaching in London as early as the 1590s. If they ever wrote anything down nothing survives. All that is known is that their there message was the unorthodox preaching that both the Church of England and the Catholic Church were engulfed in the same flames of corruption. Therefore, they aligned themselves with the Anabaptist belief of independence and freedom.
The Legate Brothers were comittited to teachings of Arius, a christian preacher born as early as 250 AD in Alexandria, Egypt. Arinism was the belief that Jesus was a man who had lived and grown the same as every human being and not the same as the divine being that was god. Therefore Jesus was equal to all men and all men were equal in holy spirit to each other. So the Legate brothers preached a mixture of anti-church Anabaptism and Arianism’s equality of the spirit in the people.
The authorities could not tolerate such dissent and, so with a date unknown Walter was drowned, a favourite method for killing Anabaptists. In 1611 the two remaining brothers Bartholomew and Thomas were imprisoned at Newgate under heresy charges. Thomas died in the prison and Bartholomew was offered the chance to be released if he retracted his beliefs.
Most people chose to retract, but he refused and Bartholomew Legate was sent for trial at the London consistory court, a specialist court for religous trials. Bartholomew was found guilty and sent to Smithfield market, a popular place for executions.
He was burnt at the stake on 18 march 1612, under the mandate of James I who called Bartholomew Legate an “Incorrigible Heretic”.
3. Shadows, Secrets And Silent Gatherings
After the burnings of Legate and Wightman, James I decided against executing heretics as it created martyrs who gained publicity for their cause and their followers. Instead heretics were left to rot in prison until they either retracted their beliefs or died.
By the 1620s, no longer fearing death, a heretical culture rose from the working classes and self-declared preachers became more prominent than ever before. The required preaching degree from Oxford or Cambridge had been made redundant by the people.
This practice of anyone and everyone being able to give ministry has its roots in Anabaptism and is known as the Priesthood of all Believers. For these new heretics the secrecy of shadows was required in order to avoid prison. And It was in the shadows that the Seekers first took shape.
Much of the detail is a mystery but what is known is that the Seekers initially grew from the followers of Bartholomew Legate and were simply known as the Legatine-Arians. Based in London, their beliefs spread northwards to the rebellious northern parts of the country, which would have included Litchfield, from which cathedral the trial of Edward Wightman took place.
No contemporary image of a Seekers’ meeting exists but what is known is that they gathered in silence, waiting for the spirit/light to descend upon them. They also had no head to their assemblies and came together in small groups. These loosely associated groups had no central structure and they became known as the Scattered Flock.
William Penn (1644 – 1718), who would later become a Quaker said of the Seekers that they met together “not in their own wills” and:
“Waited in silence, and as anything arose in one of their minds that they thought favored with a divine spring, so they sometimes spoke.”
Followers of the newly emerging faith believed in the following (most of which came from aspects of Anabaptism):
- Having no creed
- Embracing a broad spectrum of ideas and positions
- Supporting separation of church from state
- Respecting all religions, but accepting none as authoritative
- Not excluding a person from joining another sect
- Believing the spirit was equal in all
- Allowing women preachers, a much derided practice at the time
- Favouring anti-nominiasm, a rejection of religious law (especially as written in the old testament)
The Seekers would soon find themselves stepping out of the shadows as civil war loomed.
4. A Design For Peace
By the start of 1640s the English world was turned upside down by rebels, radicals and revolution.
The period of civil war had begun and it would last until the end of the decade. This was the period of dissent when the Seekers emerged from the secrecy of shadows into the public light, where their influence and growth increased.
They were just one of a number of groups that carried a message to sway the masses. And the Seekers message was of peace, equality, and religious freedom.
Some secretive Seekers stepped forward and used the new technology of the printing press to spread the word.
One such secretive Seeker was the poet and writer John Milton.
John Milton is best known for Paradise Lost published in 1667, however he first acheived fame during his lifetime for Areopagatica.
The title page reads, ‘Areopagatica, a speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicenced printing, to the Parliament of England’. Written in 1645 in the midst of the war, Areopagatica is a passionate defence of free speech and freedom of press.
Another Seeker who stepped out of the shadows and into the public light, was John Saltmarsh. He was a prominent preacher and writer from Yorkshire, who served as a chaplain in the Parliamentarian army.
Some of his titles include:
- Holy Discoveries and Flames (1640)
- A Peace but No Pacification (1643)
Free Grace (1645)
- Dawnings of Light (1645)
- Groanes for Liberty (1646)
- Reasons for Unitie, Peace, and Love (1646)
In 1646 he also published the Smoke in the Temple, which became known as a reference book for Seekers and other dissenter faiths.
It’s first paragraph reads:
Wherein is a design for peace and reconciliation of believers of the several opinions of these times about ordinances, to a forbearance of each other in love, and meeknesse, and humility.
In 1647, a catalogue of several sects that have dangerous tenents was published by the authorities. Among the sects listed are the Anabaptists, Seekers and Libertarians.
Despite having dangerous tenants Oliver Cromwell was sympathetic to the Seekers and in fact his daughter Bridgette became one. In a letter written to her Cromwell writes:
“Thus to be a seeker is to be of the next best sect a finder; and such a one shall every faithful humble seeker be at the end. Happy seeker happy finder.”
By now the Seekers had firmly shunned the shadows and one Seeker in particular would take the limelight.
5. George Fox And The Children Of The Light
The story of the Seekers and the Quakers converge with the spiritual awakening of one man, George Fox.
We know a lot about Fox, mainly from his journal which was written and compiled as a memoir towards the later end of his life.
His encounters with the Seekers are spread across a few pages and indeed the first chapter is entitled, Boyhood – A Seeker 1624 – 1648.
Fox was a man very much moulded by the religous times and historical events he lived in. He was born in 1624 in the small village of Fenny Drayton in leicestershire, in the midlands of England.
Fenny Drayton was a Puritan village at the time, meaning that many of the villagers sought reform within the church of England by making it pure again.
Pureness in this context meant a simple and plain life that rejected opulence and the perceived indulgences of the church of England.
Fox’s father was a weaver, but surely of more spiritual influence was his uncle who was an Anabaptist. Therefore, Fox had some exposure to the Anabaptists faith and practice as well as being aware aware of their history of persucution and suffering as heretics.
His education as a child has not been recorded but he was taught to read and write and developed an early interest in faith.
Recalling his childhood Fox wrote in his journal “when I came to eleven years of age, I knew pureness and righteousness,”
This is an curious statement given that Fox’s childhood environment was a hotbed of reform and rebellion against the Church of England.
In 1643, aged 19, driven by his inner voice Fox left home to go seeking an experience that “spoke to thy condition”.
He journeyed towards London in a state of mental torment passing through many towns on the way.
He returned after a year having not found what he was looking for.
By now the English civil war had begun and society saw itself struck down by its own sword.
Heads cracked and blood flowed as the ever violent battles between the king and Parliament engulfed everyone in the flames of war. Many turned towards the Church of England to lead the way in seeking peace. But the church, by this time, was openly wounded and festered with corruption.
People perceived it as fanning the flames rather than extinguishing them. They believed that the church did not represent the common people of its flocks but rather its own self-interests of land ownership, wealth and influence.
Restless, Fox left again to travel up and down the country shaping his own spiritual path away from the church.
During Fox’s travels, his preaching had attracted a small band of followers. They called themselves the Children of the Light.
By 1647, Fox and the Children of the Light had been preaching the message, which is known today as “what you seek outside yourself is available within.” It was also in 1647 that they began calling each other ‘Friend’ taken from the line in the Gospel of John “you are my friends.” Thus they also called themselves Friends of the Truth.
When Fox’s followers inevitably crossed paths with a group Seekers what do you think happened?
Did they draw swords and cut each other to ribbons or did they join together their numbers?
They united and Fox became the spearhead for a burgeoning group that sought a new identity as the civil war period was drawing nearer to its bloody end by 1649.
By the end of the decade the bloody war was over. The king had been executed, Cromwell became Lord protector and England was declared a republic. Society had been struck down by its own sword and it left many people seeking answers.
So naturally the number of Seekers had swelled and in 1652 an estimated 1,000 of them gathered at Firbank Fell, Cumbria to hear Fox preach. Many Seekers were so inspired by the words of Fox that the course of their history would change forever.
6. The Seeking Quakers
The Children of the Light were known to tremble or quake during their silent worship and, in 1650 when George Fox appeared at court in Derby on blasphemy charges, the judge mockingly called them Quakers and the name stuck.
If the Seekers were hush hush then the Quakers were the opposite.
They were loud. Loud and proud.
They openly campaigned in public for peace, religious freedom and equality.
Quakers directly challenged authority in a way the Seekers never did.
Inevitably, Quakers clashed with the law and many of them served time in prison for either blasphemy or a range of public order offences.
To justify their faith, they harnessed the power of printing press like no other group before them and described themselves as Publishers of the Truth.
By the end of the 1650s, they had produced an unrivaled quantity of well written and often highly provocative literature.
The most significant of which is the Quaker Peace declaration of 1660 that they directly took to both the newly crowned Charles II and Parliament.
Through the imprisonments and publications, the Quakers had gained a prominence in society that the Seekers never achieved.
In 1689 William and Mary came to the throne and they passed the Act of Toleration, its long title being – An Act for Exempting their Majestyes Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of certaine Lawes.
The Seekers no longer had to hide in the shadows, but by now many of them had become Quakers.
There numbers would never recover.
7. Funeral For A Friend
Shortly after the Act of Toleration was passed, in 1691 George Fox, Seeker and Quaker, died aged 66 (his gravestone shows the date according the Julian calendar).
The Seekers would gather in a great number for the last time to attend his funeral.
Mainly due to Fox and his inner circle of friends, the Quakers had become highly structured, organised, nationwide and masterful campaigners.
Everything the Seekers lacked.
No doubt Fox’s funeral inspired more Seekers to follow Quakerism.
By 1697, Quakerism had spread throughout the colonies of the new world and had become an accepted and established faith.
The Seekers never really made the leap across the pond. A few had earlier travelled with Henry Vane the Younger (1613 – 1662), who briefly became the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Vane the Younger was a champion for religious freedom, but he soon returned to England. The Seekers he left behind in the New World either gave up on the faith or converted to Quakerism.
At the end of the 17th century, the Seekers once again slipped back into the shadows. They continued into the early 18th century where they eventually became so scattered they died out leaving their faith to live on in the Quakers.
Images from www.historyextra.com